It has been a sad pleasure yesterday and today to read the many tributes to and remembrances of WFB, Jr., a great American who tops the short list of 20th century conservatism’s founding fathers.
Or perhaps resuscitating fathers would describe things better. Buckley took a political and life philosophy that in post-war America was on life support, revived it, gave it direction, and made it into the contender it is today. He helped put to bed Lionel Trilling’s absurd assertion that conservatism has no ideas. He helped show the educable that conservatism not only has ideas, but we have the better ones.
No Buckley, no conservative movement. Without WFB, Jr. you would likely be reading the New Republic or the Nation rather than TAS, that is if you had enough money left over to subscribe to anything after paying your taxes.
As well as his unparalleled political contributions, Buckley’s wit, charm, civility, and graciousness have been much commented on. These can’t be exaggerated. I was on the receiving end of all of these qualities during my only meetings with Buckley, which took place in the spring of 1976. So I don’t have to take others’ word for what a class act Buckley was personally.
Consistent with his lifetime mission of whooping up conservatism when and where opportunity presented, Buckley was in Lakeland, Florida, that May to deliver the commencement address at Florida Southern College and to make a public speech at the Lakeland Civic Center. I was a reporter with the Ledger of Lakeland, a newspaper owned by the NYT, and insisted I would be the one to interview Buckley before the events.
The interview took place in the living room of the upscale home of the Ledger’s publisher, who, with his wife, was big in such limousine liberal circles as existed in Polk County, Florida, in those days. Contrary to the stereotype of the day — conservative meanie vs. caring n’ compassionate liberal nice guys — Buckley the conservative was the very soul of graciousness, treating a reporter he had just met with all respect and civility, while the publisher treated me like hired help. Which I was, but that’s no excuse. The wife and the uniformed maid ignored my existence.
The interview, which thanks to Buckley’s personal style was more like a conversation between two friends than an interview, led to a long piece in the Ledger’s Sunday Commentary section. But it was no thanks to the publisher that the interview even got done. He kept interrupting the talk by asking Buckley questions about a coffee drink with shaved ice and some kind of cream that Buckley had told him how to make and that the publisher was trying to whip up in a blender.
When the publisher finally overcame his mechanical ineptitude enough to get the drink made to his satisfaction he poured one for his wife and brought one to Buckley, but ignored the other guy in the room, to wit: me. I didn’t care about the drink. I just wanted to keep on with the interesting conversation with Buckley about the affairs of the day. But this was a major league social faux pas and Buckley didn’t just let it slide by.
“I think you’ve got it about right,” Buckley said to the publisher after tasting the drink. Then to me, “You’ll have to try one of these, Larry,” as he got up, went to the kitchen to pour one for me, and bring it to me. He did this casually enough to include me in the proceedings while not making a stark point of what a couple of social klutzes the publisher and his wife had just been. You’d have had to have been there to appreciate how slick the move was.
When time came for Buckley to leave for the commencement address, he apologized for having to end our conversation, which by that time had run for an hour and a half or so (not including dumb-head interruptions from the publisher).
For reasons I can’t remember, another reporter covered the commencement. But I went to the civic center hours later to attend Buckley’s public seance. As I stood in the back of the rapidly-filling auditorium deciding where I wanted to sit, I heard from behind me, “Hey, Larry,” in that distinctive voice. It was, of course, Buckley, still 20 feet away. He stopped on his way to the stage to exchange a pleasantry or two with me.
By this time in his public career Buckley had doubtless dealt with thousands of reporters. So there was no reason for him to remember my name, or to treat me as one would treat a friend encountered in public. What Buckley said during the interview and the public lecture was impressive. How he behaved that day was equally so.
In the dictionary next to the entry “class act,” there is a photo of William F. Buckley Jr. He’s doubtless charming God’s Butt off right now. We’ll miss Buckley’s very large presence. But what great good luck that he came our way.
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